Incentivizing civic education: lessons from the past few decades

June 16, 2020

In his annual year-end report, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that “we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.” At first glance, I thought I disagreed. In high school, I was a member of We the People, a civics program that rigorously educated students about constitutional history, theory, and law. The program gave me the opportunity to discuss nuanced topics with my peers, like the death penalty, digital privacy, and federalism, to name a few.

Looking back, the program shaped my understanding of the importance of my rights and civic engagement in a well-functioning democracy, revealing how civic education is crucial for students so that they can vindicate their rights not just on college campuses, but throughout their lives. In fact, I joined FIRE as an intern because of what I learned from We the People, hoping to educate my peers about the importance of understanding their rights on campus. But after reflecting on my high school experience, Chief Justice Roberts’ article started to get me thinking: Has civic education really “fallen by the wayside”?

Statistically, it seems that civic education is in shambles. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “60% of college graduates failed to identify correctly a requirement for ratifying a constitutional amendment.” If Americans do not understand how to revise the very Constitution that governs our lives, it certainly seems that Chief Justice Roberts is correct.  

In addition, an examination of policies reveals how the government has shifted resources away from civic education. In 2002, George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which — in addition to standardizing the education system — heavily weighted student curricula to focus on “mathematics and reading or language arts,” neglecting other topics like the arts, science, and, most crucially, civics. While the Obama administration overturned the one-size-fits-all approach through the Every Student Succeeds Act, his administration still continued to heavily fund STEM education through the Educate to Innovate initiative, accumulating $1.0 billion in private investments for STEM education programs. Once again, civic education was neglected.

In an attempt to fill this void, both states and private organizations have mobilized, buttressing civic education in their respective regions. 

One promising step that states have taken is starting the civics curriculum earlier. Idaho, for instance, integrated a civics standard into social studies classes, making civics a requirement throughout students’ K-12 education. By engaging with programs that teach them about the elementary values of civic engagement, students will have more time to process and comprehend the information they are taught, helping future voter’s understanding of government and politics.

States and organizations have already started to cooperate to create interactive and involved civics programs in schools. Operating under the Center for Civic Education, the program that I participated in — We the People — makes civics competitive by organizing students into groups and presenting nuanced questions on constitutional topics like the balance between national security and individual privacy. A study done by Georgetown University professor Diana Owens reveals that “91% of 2011 We the People students know the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution compared to 35% of young people.” Knowing your rights and their nuances is a crucial remedy to arbitrary encroachment by the government. 

Ultimately, the onus of civic education is on the schools (and parents) and their behavior towards students. James Madison’s declaration on the importance of civic education and the preservation of rights is an illuminating answer to Chief Justice Roberts’ concerns — “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” Only a comprehensive civics education system can prevent our nation from “fall[ing] to the wayside,” preserving the future of our democracy.


Jonathan Min is a rising sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley and a FIRE Summer Intern.